(John’s note: Due to the torrential downpour that I experienced during this event, I did not dare remove my camera from the safety of the dry car. Because of this, every picture in this post (with the exception of the header) is a creative commons picture from a generous photographer on Flickr. If you like what you see, do them a favor and go take a look at their pages – I’ve included links at the bottom of this post.)
I glanced at the clock on my work computer – 5:45 pm. It was time to go. After another day in the office, it was time to pack up for the day. But this day was different – there was something else in the air.
I was in New Orleans – one of my favorite cities in the world. But despite traveling to the city several other times, this time held something new and exciting – it was my first time visiting during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, and this night was the night of my very first Carnival season parade.
Now the title of this post is slightly misleading. I was in New Orleans in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, which is known as carnival season. However, Mardi Gras is only Fat Tuesday (the date this article is being published), which I am unfortunately NOT in New Orleans for. But many of the parades, balls, and festivities leading up to Mardi Gras have the same theming, costuming, and general jubilation of the day itself, just on a smaller scale.
We had the fortune of extremely good timing, working in Louisiana during Carnival season, and our client hosts were extremely gracious. They provided us with plenty of beads, maps of the parade routes, and even a huge king cake (a delicacy eaten during carnival season).
After a day spent working and stuffing our faces with king cake, I was ready to get out of the office and get to the parade. Many of New Orleans iconic carnival parades run along the majestic St. Charles Avenue, famous for its streetcar line, live oaks, and stately mansions, and tonight’s was no exception. Looking at a map, we picked out a prime viewing spot in the Garden District and set out.
It had been drizzling off and on all night but right as we stepped out of the car after parking, the skies opened up. The rain came down relentlessly, and I’m pretty sure it rained more in five minutes than it does all year back in my hometown of Denver.
We only had two blocks to walk from where we parked to the parade route, but in that time we were completely soaked from head to toe. We found cover under a restaurant awning, and after a few more minutes of torrential downpour, the rain leveled off into a slow, steady drizzle. And just then, there was a moment of calm – the last quiet moment before people flooded the streets and the raucous parade rambled down St. Charles. People started to come out of their various hiding spots to line the parade route – and there was no way the rain was keeping anyone from enjoying the parade.
We arrived 20 minutes or so before the parade was due to start and were able to secure a spot under a massive oak tree, but by the time the parade came by, most of the curb side real estate had been taken and many folks were standing 2,3, or 4 people deep in order to catch a glimpse of the floats.
Before this visit, I learned that carnival parades are thrown by various Krewes which are essentially social groups that are made up of various members from around the area. Some are more exclusive than others, charging dues that can range in the thousands of dollars and only allowing referred or legacy members in, while others are open to anyone who is willing to pay whatever fee they charge. The Krewes then use the cash raised from their dues to build the floats used in the parades.
As I saw lights gathering on the horizon, I prepared to thrust my hands skyward in eager anticipation of the various ‘throws’ (beads, coins, cups, or anything else that might be thrown from the float). The anticipation and feverish excitement was growing across the crowd, and it was only a matter of time before the parade began.
The first floats in the procession reached us, and the parade was on. This particular parade was being held by the Krewe of the Ancient Druids, a Krewe made up of exactly 200 completely anonymous male riders who all wear masks concealing their identities. Each year they have a different secret theme for their parade, and this year it was The Circus. Floats included the lion tamer, the midway, the snake charmer, the trapeze artists, and more circus themed floats.
Members from the Krewe leaned over, tossing beads and other items to the eager hands below. Children were understandably the most often targeted for the better ‘throws’ but even my coworkers and I were able to come away with significant heft around our necks from the beads thrown. In a few instances, the Krewe members doing the throwing didn’t even bother to open the bags containing the beads, instead throwing the entire unopened bags containing dozens of bead necklaces out onto the street.
This parade was particularly family-friendly. The Krewe of the Ancient Druids has their own perpetual medieval theme (in addition to the annual changing theme of their parade, Krewes also have unique static themes that do not change), and it’s easy to see why children might be drawn to this.
While some of other Krewes have a more mature theming and caution against children coming to their parades, the crowd at this particular parade was made up primarily of families. So naturally, it was only a matter of time before I was scrambling on the ground fighting over a strand of plastic beads with a 10 year old.
Interspersed with the parade floats were the standard parade participants – drum lines, dance teams, high school marching bands, horses, shriners, etc. The marching bands were one of my favorite aspects of the parade; they were just so different from any other marching bands I had ever seen. They played a variety of music, but mostly they were playing New Orleans brass band classics, the kind you might expect to hear in a second line. It was fun to think that I could be watching the future generations of New Orleans musicians playing in these marching bands.
By the end of the parade, I was so engrossed in the visuals and music, I had completely forgotten that I was still soaking wet from the rainstorm.
While this was my first taste of a real New Orleans Mardi Gras experience, it was not enough. I am determined to make it back to the city for the REAL Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the weekend leading up to it. I can only imagine it being nothing short of amazing.
The good news for travelers with limited time is as long as it is Carnival season, it is hard to miss a parade because there are so many to choose from. This season alone, there were 60 parades over the course of 25 days. The parades run almost every day of the week (primarily in the evenings), but are especially abundant on the weekends.
A carnival parade is a great way to experience local New Orleans culture and best of all, they’re free for anyone to attend. Just try to stay dry!
Are you celebrating Mardi Gras today or have you done anything fun for it in the past? Let me know in the comments!